A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the artistic director, an ambitious young dancer, and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up. (IMDB)
Some German with English subtitles.
Scene at the end of the credits.
2 hours, 32 minutes
Suspiria was in New York and Los Angeles theaters October 26, and expanded nationwide November 2.
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writers: David Kajganich, with characters created by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi
Composer: Thom Yorke
Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton
Genre: Fantasy, Horror, Mystery
Suspiria (1977) might be a cult classic, adored by horror geeks and cinephiles alike, yet a perfect piece of art it is not. With out-dated (albeit quaint) special effects, and a plot that feels oddly overshadowed by its own artistic presentation, it makes sense that this would be picked for a remake. However Argento’s brash use of lighting, score, and set design are so iconic that it’s hard to imagine that such a story could even be replicated with as much vigor. So what exactly does a remake of Suspiria look like? Do we get the same bold directorial choices, just with updated graphics and a heftier story? Or are we treated to something new entirely?
Suspiria is a horror film that relies on shock value and twists in the plot, in order to elicit fear from the audience. Revealing the content will, therefore, affect the cinematic experience. Be aware that the following information contains mild spoilers.
Violence/Scary Images: Extreme body horror. No exaggeration–I won’t be surprised if you will find Suspiria in a future top ten list for the most gruesome and disturbing films released in the last decade. You have been warned.
Ultraviolent, featuring cascades of blood from decapitated or half-decapitated people. In a voodoo-esque manner, a character’s body is twisted until their bones break or are otherwise thoroughly dislocated in every joint. Grotesque, disfigured naked bodies crowd a character. Characters are attacked or threatened with meat hooks–we see it pierce through the skin multiple times. Close up shot of a compound fracture in the leg. Disturbing dream sequences featuring a hostile collection of images (naked forms, screaming, allusions to suffering burns from an iron, worms, entrails, etc).
A reaper-like entity kills multiple people by causing their head to explode. A character commits suicide by stabbing themselves in the neck. There are frequent news talks about a terrorist attack. Heavy ritualistic scenes containing frenzied movements from naked dancers. Strong use of witchcraft. A character has a severe fit and foams at the mouth. A character’s stomach is sliced open and their intestines are pulled out. There is a story about death by exposure in a Nazi concentration camp.
Language/Crude Humor: The big bad c-word is said (with subtitles). The f-bomb is dropped irregularly (three times), the s-word is said, along with a*s, d*ck, p*ssy, and d*mn.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters drink alcoholic beverages socially. There’s frequent cigarette usage, along with smoking a pipe.
Sexual Content: Full frontal nudity of both male and female forms. Some characters, usually the men, are mocked whilst nude. There is a considerable amount of ritualistic nude dance. No sex scenes, though there are some sexually suggestive movements, and a character ponders over what it would be like to have sex with an animal. A character drops their pants and sits on the toilet to urinate. Characters frequently wear revealing outfits, sometimes with the nipples exposed.
Spiritual Content: The film revolves around a coven of witches. There is a lengthy occult ritual scene, where the altar is formed out of naked bodies. There is an original story about three witches that predate Christianity. The rituals of Catholicism are shown–rosary beads, and anointing someone’s head with oil. God is mentioned and sins are discussed.
Other Negative Content: It is unclear what this movie is trying to say about Christianity. Given that the witchcraft is an allegory for the abuses that occurred under Nazi occupation, it is questionable if it’s also linking the rituals of modern day religions to that of dangerous political ideology as well. Several characters prey upon the innocent, with one character, in particular, being cruelly manipulated emotionally.
Positive Content: With such a diverse cast, the film explores the different roles people in society undertook when oppressed in Nazi Germany. Characters are valued solely for what they can contribute, tossed aside as soon as they are no longer useful. Others don’t challenge the system. Some escape justice. The topic of grief and remembrance is touched upon, along with the tragedy of forgetting such atrocities.
Back in 2009, I was provided the opportunity to visit the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. While it’s a church steeped in archaeological history, what struck me most were the artworks from around the world that adorned the walls. With a briefing that only entailed that they must depict the Virgin Mary, France, Japan, and the United States were some of the countries that agreed to participate in decorating the church. What’s fascinating is that despite having the same source material, the venerated figure is presented in vastly different ways; there is no right or wrong, but rather all are an artistic representation that also happens to subconsciously reflect the artist’s worldview.
This is what has occurred with both Suspiria films. The original movie was so defined by its stylistic choices that it was astounding to even consider that it could ever be remade. The score from Goblin, the use of Technicolor, the bold lighting choices and production design; all these elements are the result of Dario Argento’s strong directorial choices. It would seem remiss to simply replicate it, much like what Gus Van Sant did with Hitchcock’s Psycho. Honestly, what would be the point?
Yet, what is Suspiria without those elements? Thankfully Luca Guadagnino has powerfully responded by creating a film that is uniquely his own, not even trying to replace Argento’s masterpiece, but rather provide his own take on the story. Although, it’s disingenuous to say that they even share the same plot. Rather Guadagnino has adopted the concept, the setting, and tweaked a few characters, and that’s about it. Like the artworks in the Church of the Annunciation, the films share the same source material, but their presentation cannot be more different.
Everyone take note–this is what a remake should look like. It carves out a space in cinema through its own merit, not reliant on nostalgia or ripping off the artistry of the original piece. It’s to such an extent that it’s hard to compare the two films. They are completely different products with separate goals, themes, strengths, and weaknesses.
It’s no secret that the plot is the weakest element in 1977’s Suspiria. In this new version, it’s the strongest. Finally, there’s some justification as to why the story is set within a dance school. In the original, it was unclear as to how or why the business existed. While Argento’s film can be excused for its lack of finer details due to its otherworldly, fairytale charm, Guadagnino’s Suspiria firmly cements his story into German history, using the events within dance school and the characters’ participation as a metaphor for the Holocaust and the divide created due to the Berlin Wall. In this way, the original film is a lighter watch, while the 2018 version is considerably heavier, especially when it weighs in at a hefty two and half hours, nearly sixty minutes longer than the first.
While nothing can really be compared to the 1977’s stylized horror, this doesn’t mean that the 2018 version is weak in its technical precision. The cinematography wholly embraces a 1970s feel, looking like it was plucked straight from that film era. The subdued color palette is perfect, along with the costuming and production design. Sudden whips and zooms from the camera take the audience off-guard, creating an uneasy undercurrent. Yet admittedly, that sense of dread was more prominent in the 1977 movie; the tension dips and wanes at times in the new film.
The story’s well-defined six-act structure (or seven, if you count the epilogue) that are denoted by title cards, may be the reason why some parts twist the stomach more than others. There are essentially two stories occurring in one. There’s the plot revolving around the new American dancer, Susie, and her sudden mysterious rise to the top of the academy, and there’s also a tale that digs into the tragic history of an old psychologist, who still grieves his wife’s disappearance from the days of the Holocaust. Thematically it’s necessary to see these narratives linked, however, audiences will naturally tend to invest more energy into one over the other, therefore making the less interesting plot feel more like an unwanted intrusion.
The film starts off slow and sloppy. While Chloë Grace Moretz has done some marvelous performances in the past, her role as an unhinged psyche patient feels inauthentic and unconvincing here. Meanwhile, Dakota Johnson certainly redeems her acting career with this film, delivering an enticingly nuanced performance worthy of a second watch. Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast as the majestically commanding Madame Blanc, though she also plays two other roles. While she does her best as all three characters, her casting is distracting and lacks justification, feeling more like a gimmick for a chance at an Oscar rather than a well-conceived directorial choice.
Thankfully the story is filled with wonderful little side characters–each rich enough to deserve their own analysis–that carry the film through its growing pains in the first act. For the audience members who are familiar with the original, it takes some time to shed preconceived notions regarding the direction of the plot and to accept that this remake is its own beast.
It’s unclear and muddy with its direction until the film produces its first death, violently demonstrating why it’s deserving of being labeled a horror. Suddenly everything starts to click into place, with the film laying bare its plans for the rest of its runtime. Mouth agape, I wish I could describe this momentous scene by offering a relevant comparison, yet it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen committed to screen. It’s horribly gruesome and disturbing, whilst fantastically edited and presented.
While this scene is already leaving its mark on the Internet, I don’t want to hype it up too much or give the wrong impression; this is not like a slasher where you go into the cinema with a full tub of popcorn, munching away while an expendable character gets offed in a quick moment of shock and bloodshed. Suspiria is different. It’s relentless. The scene goes for approximately four minutes, leaving their death to linger with the audience for an exhaustingly depressing amount of time. It’s cruel, distressing, and eventually demands empathy, torturing you for ever wishing such a fate on another human. …It’s brilliant.
The most disturbing aspect is that it only gets worse from there. The climax of the film is jaw-droppingly bonkers, filled with writhing masses of gore. It’s not a total horror-fest. For the most part, Suspiria is a slow burn of a film filled with a growing sense of mystery and unease. However, when it wants to break out and push the boundaries a bit more, it does so unabated and without remorse. If you can’t handle the first death scene… Walk out. Don’t look back.
The film has a hypnotic quality, where no matter how messed up the action becomes, the viewer seemingly can’t look away. It’s sensual. Earthy. Primal. There are worship sequences that feel ancient and dynamic, predating Christianity, as though you’re privileged to witness a rare act from an antiquated civilization, like Canaan. Horribly disturbing, but oddly fascinating, and ultimately satisfying. It’s unfair to describe the nudity in this film as sexualized and exploitative. While there are some allusions to sexuality, the nakedness in this film is more about power and debasement, confidence and vulnerability. However, if seeing the naked form is enough to cause you to stumble, then don’t watch this movie.
There is much to be said regarding the film’s metaphorical treatment of the Holocaust, though it’s not the only commentary the story provides. This movie contains many deeper meanings, yet they cannot be grasped in a single viewing. Unfortunately, like Requiem for a Dream, 2018’s Suspiria is one of those films where you don’t exactly rush back to the cinema to experience the torment all over again. The movie certainly has some thoughts surrounding the concept of rituals; whether it’s art, religion, or politics, we are all vessels that adopt the traditions of those before us.
There are some scenes that delve into Christianity, though for me, a second watch will be necessary to fully grasp how it all fits into the wider message of the film. What exactly is it saying about the religion? Then again, maybe I’m seeking for an answer that’s not there, giving the film too much credit when in reality it may not have provided enough information or appropriately conveyed the moral of the story. After all, if you fail to pay attention to a minute piece of exposition, the ending will make absolutely no sense whatsoever. In some ways, watching Dario Argento’s trilogy may be considered homework in order to glean more from the fragmented plot.
What is clear is that this is a film that doesn’t glorify God. The characters spend an inordinate amount of time worshipping another entity. However, this also doesn’t mean that Suspiria is pro-paganism. The actions of the believers are reprehensible–did I mention that it’s literally being compared to a Nazi death camp? Once again, like what happened with Hereditary, I find myself stuck. Suspiria is a wonderfully wicked piece of art that seeks to distress and disturb its viewers in order to make a point, it’s just a question as to whether that message really is worth exposing oneself to its extreme body horror.
If you’re not an appreciator of the art form itself, then it’s a hard film to justify watching. For those in the former camp, then Suspiria is a gorgeous film, from its cinematic choices, fitting score, fascinating Pina Bausch-inspired choreography, and even its daringness to repulse its audience; not handling viewers with kid gloves when the moral doesn’t ask for it. It’s a remake done right that doesn’t seek to usurp the original, leaving the 1977’s film legacy intact and untarnished.
But don’t get me wrong… It’s messed up. Seriously.
I’m glad it’s now November because after this film I definitely feel like I’m done with the horror genre for the year.
Now when’s the next kids’ film featuring friendly, fluffy talking animals!?
+ Dakota Johnson
+ Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc
+ Production elements (cinematography, set design, costume, lighting, score)
+ A more developed plot compared to the original
+ This one actually features dancing!
+ It's so disturbing that I desperately want to look away but it's oddly hypnotic and powerful and wickedly beautiful but I have no idea what I just watched and I love it even though my brain cannot compute this uncomfortable mixture of emotions and everything is so messed up just like this run-on sentence.
- Chloë Grace Moretz
- Tilda Swinton's other roles
- Unclear message; the allegory can only account for so much
- Super disturbing and will be too violent for most viewers
- Plot feels disjointed, with the pace being too slow for some
- It's messed up!